The arc of the quintessential fracking battle is still taking shape, but it’s beginning to look like a recurring feature in the storyline may be the “ban” – a word drilling companies are loathe to even speak. We see that scene playing out in New Jersey where legislators, enviros and up-in-arms citizens are putting heat on Governor Chris Christie and the Delaware River Basin Commission to ban the controversial extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” until impacts on the environment and human health can be fully assessed.
The “ready, fire, aim” approach embraced by frackers and their supporters in government is becoming an increasingly heated point of contention among opponents of a practice that has been known to produce a range of volatile environmental impacts, including flammable tap water and exploding drinking-water wells. Most level-headed folks would agree that it makes sense to conduct a full environmental impact assessment before – not after – subjecting a region and its residents to an aggressive, “no holds barred” industrial practice like fracking.
At issue is the rapidly expanding use of an extraction process first used by Halliburton (which should tell us something) in the late-1940s. Fracking extracts oil and natural gas from deep below the earth’s surface by drilling a well and pumping it full of fluid under extremely high pressure. The pressurized liquid – a mix of water, sand and toxic chemicals – fractures rock formations (primarily shale), releasing the oil and natural gas for drilling companies to collect and speed to market. Frackers are tripping over themselves to exploit natural gas deposits across the country from Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York to Barnett Shale in Texas to the Piceance Basin in Colorado – as a modern day gold rush catches fire (and I mean that quite literally).
As with any industrial practice that mines our natural resources, there are significant risks. New Jersey state Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen), one of the elected officials calling for a ban, sums up the impacts:
“Whether it’s the toxic mix of known and unknown chemicals used in the fracking process, the loss of billions of gallons of fresh drinking water, or the toxic waste water produced throughout the fracking process, any one of these potential dangers outweighs any benefits of gas production.”
Oil and gas executives say those concerns amount to much ado about nothing, claiming hydraulic fracturing presents no risk whatsoever to the general public or the environment.
As expected, the Jersey media is chiming in, taking particular issue with the industry’s “don’t worry, be happy” mindset. From the Times of Trenton editorial board: “It’s a refrain we have heard many times: The Titanic is unsinkable. Deep-sea drilling rigs are secure. Nuclear reactors’ fail-safe features ensure safety. Mountaintop-removal mining has no damaging impacts.” Points all well taken.
The stakes are high indeed: On one side, potentially hundreds of millions in production profits, and on the other, the health of residents and the environment. According to an article posted on the NJ Spotlight website: Environmentalists are “worried that fracking could taint the drinking water supplies of millions in the Delaware River Basin. More than 1.5 million people in New Jersey alone rely on the river for their drinking water.”
Here’s the kicker: There’s no fracking currently taking place in the Garden State. But environmentalists and concerned elected officials like state Sen. Gordon, believe it’s only a matter of time before frackers make a play to drill in the Utica formations, which stretch across parts of New Jersey’s Sussex, Warren and Hunterdon counties.
A preemptive ban is a bold move that I hope will serve as a model for other natural gas-rich states and localities to follow when drillers come knocking. And they will come knocking, you can be sure. The ban will also be viewed as a shot across the bow to states, like Pennsylvania, that are enjoying the spoils of fracking revenue – but at what cost?
Jim Walsh, New Jersey director of the nonprofit Food and Water Watch: “What we know and don’t know about fracking is enough reason to ban it. We are talking about our drinking water and a whole lot more.” Walsh’s organization has released a report that outlines the environmental and economic impacts of fracking on rural communities, citing accidents that have polluted streams, rivers and drinking-water supplies (see link to the full report below).
Walsh is just one of many enviros calling for the ban. Executive Director Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club lays out the situation in the frankest of terms: “We need to block [fracking] until it become safe one day. Unless we have a ban, we can destroy the Delaware Basin.”
As the race for natural gas becomes even more intense and aggressive over the coming months, my guess is we’ll see more state and local bans put in place. And until the industry can produce some tangible evidence that fracking is indeed safe for the environment and the public, those bans should remain in place. Period.
The ball is in the industry’s court. It remains to be seen what they do with it.
Here’s a piece from the Times of Trenton editorial board: http://www.nj.com/times-opinion/index.ssf/2011/06/editorial_nj_ban_on_fracking_p.html
Catchup on the ban with NJ Spotlight here: http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/11/0614/0021/
Here’s the link to the full Food and Water Watch report: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/tools-and-resources/the-case-for-a-ban-on-gas-fracking/
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